Are you ready?

Sooner or later, it happens. You’re sailing along with everything under control, business is booming, and your major concern is how to keep existing customers happy while you respond to all of the new business.

Then, it happens. Your company suddenly faces a crisis.

A crisis can hit any organization, from the largest multinational corporation to the smallest of companies. The objective is always the same: Quickly contain a negative situation and keep it from turning into a full-fledged public relations disaster.

Consider these three phases of response in crisis communications: the initial response, ongoing communications and follow-up activities. The initial response doesn’t have to be anything more than an acknowledgment that something has happened, but the timing can mean the difference between a potential crisis and a real one.

An immediate response is critical. In the absence of information from your business, the crisis will grow. The media will report on the situation with or without your input. You need to acknowledge that you are aware of the situation and are serious about investigating it. If the problem proves real, promise to do everything in your power to resolve it and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Provide regular updates.

To stay in control of how the situation is communicated, take the initiative. Depending on the severity of the incident, establish a schedule for regular media briefings. Send out news releases or media updates. Be careful not to overdo it. If you do, you’ll keep the situation alive just when it may be diminishing in terms of public interest. Trust your gut and rely on common sense.

Follow-up communication comes after the crisis has been resolved. The objective is to control the situation. Issue a statement and report of what happened, and how you acted to end the crisis. Explain the steps that are in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again and what you are doing to make up for any inconvenience or damage it caused.

Consider these dos and don’ts:

  • DO appoint one person as the spokesperson. (The CEO is usually a good choice).

  • DO explain what happened in clear, concise terms.

  • DO make your important points at the beginning of your statement.

  • DO explain what you are doing to control the situation.

  • DO prepare to answer negative questions.

  • DO control your temper, even when asked what may seem to be inappropriate questions.

  • DON’T reply with “No comment.” It implies you have something to hide.

  • DON’T lie. Stick to the facts.

  • DON’T provide lengthy detail. (Save it for a written report).

  • DON’T speak for any group other than your own. (Refer the reporter to the appropriate group.)

  • DON’T assume any conversation with a reporter is ever “off the record,” even if you are friends.

A few words about your lawyers in a crisis communications situation: Don’t let them take over. Lawyers often advise clients to say nothing initially, or worse, to deny responsibility. Don’t waste valuable time discussing semantics with your legal counsel over this issue.

Remind him or her of how Johnson & Johnson (maker of Tylenol) and Pepsi (“syringes in the cans”) quickly regained public confidence by immediately responding to cases of product tampering. Point out how the chairman of Phillips Petroleum immediately apologized for the rupture of a storage tank that dumped thousands of gallons of petroleum upstream of Pittsburgh’s water utilities and offered to assume full responsibility for all cleanup operations and damages.

Before I alienate every lawyer, let me add that I in no way want to demean the role of legal counsel in a crisis situation. Ultimately, good, sound legal strategy is going to help resolve the issue in your favor. My point is that a good, sound media relations strategy is just as important to resolve the crisis.

The one DO that I did not add to the list is one that deserves special mention. DO develop a crisis communications plan, one that takes into account crises that your organization could encounter and defines a series of actions to be taken to keep them from ever happening.

If you’re waiting for a crisis to happen before you develop this plan, you’re already too late.

Jeff Krakoff is the owner of Krakoff Communications, Inc., a Pittsburgh-based marketing communications and public relations agency. Reach him at (412) 434-7718 or [email protected].